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Notes on the State of Politics: March 28, 2024


Dear Readers: In this week’s edition of Notes on the State of Politics, we are extending an invite to several events the Center for Politics is holding next weekend (April 5-6) as part of our 25th Anniversary Gala, as well as looking at the growing number of vacancies in the House, a Democratic retirement in New Hampshire, and a notable special state House election in Alabama.

— The Editors

Center for Politics Marks 25th Anniversary with 2024 Election Analysis, Campaign Song Concert

The Center for Politics at the University of Virginia is marking its 25th anniversary on Friday, April 5 and Saturday, April 6 with three events open to Crystal Ball readers and the general public:

AI and the Potential for Interference in the 2024 Election, Friday, April 5 from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Colonnade Club Solarium on the Grounds of the University of Virginia. The discussion will feature Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Jen Easterly, and Google Global AI Policy Lead Adelina Cooke. Tammy Haddad, a veteran former television news producer and executive and founder of the Washington AI Network, will moderate.

Attendance is free and open to the public by registering here.

Political Campaign Songs Through the Ages, Friday, April 5, from 8 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at Old Cabell Hall on the Grounds of UVA. The UVA Chamber Singers led by Prof. Michael Slon will perform campaign songs from throughout American political history. Center for Politics Scholar Tara Setmayer will host the evening, and Martin Luther King III will make his first appearance as a Center for Politics Professor of Practice, speaking in the same location where his father, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., spoke at UVA 61 years ago.

The Center for Politics has a limited supply of free tickets available to the general public—contact Center for Politics Programs Director Glenn Crossman for those tickets at gac4t@virginia.edu. Tickets can also be purchased through the UVA Arts Box Office.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball 25th Anniversary Edition and Center for Politics Open House, Saturday, April 6, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Center for Politics will host an open house beginning at 11 a.m. and a groundbreaking ceremony for its new building expansion at 11:45 a.m. Lunch will be served following the groundbreaking. Following lunch, the Crystal Ball will look ahead to the 2024 election with Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato and a group of special guests, including Center scholars Paul Begala and Jamelle Bouie, Chuck Todd of NBC News, Bulwark publisher Sarah Longwell, former Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), and Alexander Theodoridis of UMass Amherst.

Contact Glenn Crossman at gac4t@virginia.edu to attend the free Saturday program.

For more information on the Center for Politics’ 25th Anniversary events and how to support the center, see https://centerforpolitics.org/gala-weekend/.

The narrowing GOP House majority

Rep. Mike Gallagher’s (R, WI-8) surprising announcement late last week that he would resign on April 19 combined with an earlier and also surprising resignation announcement by now ex-Rep. Ken Buck (R, CO-4) is going to have the effect of further reducing the Republicans’ already-slim House majority.

In the 2022 election, Republicans won a 222-213 majority. In any Congress, the actual membership will vary slightly, as vacancies will crop up for one reason or another. Once Gallagher officially resigns, he will be the ninth member elected in 2022 whose seat became vacant over the course of this Congress. The first vacancy came even before the 118th Congress was sworn in, as Rep. Donald McEachin (D, VA-4) died in late November 2022. He was replaced by now-Rep. Jennifer McClellan (D, VA-4) in February 2023. Several new vacancies followed, most notably the expulsion of now ex-Rep. George Santos (R, NY-3) last year, which resulted in a party change as now-Rep. Tom Suozzi (D, NY-3) took the seat from the Republicans. At full strength—which it appears will not actually happen again in this Congress—the House would be 221-214 Republican. In actuality, the House is 218-213, which will drop to 217-213 once Gallagher officially resigns on April 19.

Gallagher is timing his resignation so that a special election to fill his vacancy will not be held before the November general election, a decision that understandably is upsetting some of his soon-to-be-former colleagues. Besides Gallagher, there are four other House vacancies, prompted by the recent resignations of now-former Reps. Brian Higgins (D, NY-26), Bill Johnson (R, OH-6), and the aforementioned Buck, as well as former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R, CA-20).

Here's the timeline for how these seats will be filled:

April 30, NY-26 special election: State Sen. Tim Kennedy (D) is a strong favorite to hold this 61%-37% Joe Biden-won district.

May 21, CA-20 special election: A Republican will win this 61%-36% Trump district; McCarthy-backed state Assemblyman Vince Fong finished well ahead of Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux in the first round of voting for the special and general elections.

June 11, OH-6 special election: State Sen. Michael Rulli (R) is a strong favorite to hold this 64%-35% Donald Trump-won district after winning a competitive primary last week.

June 25, CO-4 special election: Both parties will select nominees for this special general election, which coincides with the Colorado state-level primary. The Republican nominee—who will be picked in a convention today (Thursday)—is a strong favorite to hold this Trump 58%-40% district. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R, CO-3) switched to running in this seat after Buck’s initial retirement announcement, but she is not competing in the special election.

So once Gallagher resigns on April 19, the Republican House edge will be just 217-213. And based on the sequencing above, Democrats will cut that to 217-214 assuming Kennedy wins on April 30. That will leave a period of a few weeks of that tiny GOP majority until the three other Safe Republican seats are filled from late May to late June. The danger for Republicans would be if there are several additional resignations between now and the end of April—if the House ever got to 214-213 Democratic. The current rules stipulate that a single member can force a vote to overthrow the speaker—the same tactic that resulted in McCarthy being deposed. If the House supported that motion, there would then be a subsequent speaker vote where Democrats, assuming full attendance and party unity, could elect a speaker. Republicans, assuming they got the majority back and were unified (a big assumption these days, although the prospect of a Democratic speaker taking over could spur unity), could take the speakership back once they themselves have the majority. Or, a split 214-214 House could fail to produce a speaker if a motion to vacate passed—we have already seen the majority party, the Republicans, have difficulty electing a speaker in both January and in October, and whenever the House does not have a speaker, the first order of business is electing a speaker (as we also saw last year). A newly-formed majority could also change the rules to make it harder to force a motion to vacate the speakership—although a new majority could change the rules again later on. As congressional expert Matt Glassman of the Government Affairs Institute reminded us as we bounced some of these scenarios off of him: “The House, after all, is a majoritarian institution. Nothing can stop a hellbent majority from getting its way.” A majority of just one for either side could also lead to a party switch changing the majority party, although there are not any truly obvious candidates to do that on either side. The “what ifs” here are almost endless, and that doesn’t even mention the possibility that there could be another revolt initiated by a Republican member against Speaker Mike Johnson (R, LA-4) even if Republicans remain in the majority—just last week, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R, GA-14) filed a motion to vacate the speakership last week, although she is not following through on forcing a vote at the moment.

While there is recent precedent of the Senate majority changing mid-session—then-Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-VT) left the GOP to caucus with Democrats in mid-2001, giving the Democrats what amounted to a 51-49 majority for the remainder of that Congress—there really isn’t such precedent in the House. The only somewhat comparable situation was what happened in 1930-1931—the Democrats very nearly won the majority in the 1930 midterm, and then they did win the majority over the course of the 1931 calendar year through special elections. But that was not a mid-session change because, back then, the newly-elected Congress elected in the 1930 election did not convene until December 1931.

It seems unlikely that there will be several additional Republican resignations/vacancies over the next couple of months—and if the GOP ever got to just a bare majority, there would be immense pressure on the remaining members to stay put. But there’s also clearly a lot of discontent on the GOP side after an exhausting time in the majority following the 2022 elections; plugged-in Fox News congressional reporter Chad Pergram reported a few days ago that “other Republicans are fed up and could leave before the end of the Congress.”

One could also reasonably argue that the Republicans currently are not operating as a real majority party. Because of the fissures within his own party, Speaker Johnson has had to pass some must-pass legislation under a suspension of the rules, which requires 2/3rds majorities (and, thus by definition, significant buy-in from Democrats). The Wall Street Journal recently explored this unusual situation in depth.

In the longer term, we have to also remember that we have just had consecutive regular House elections that produced small 222-213 majorities, first for the Democrats and then for the Republicans. The House is competitive enough that we could have an even smaller majority in 2024 or in the future—perhaps even 218-217. If that happens, the odds of a majority party change occurring between regular elections goes up dramatically.

NH-2 remains Likely Democratic

Despite the Republicans’ shrinking majority, the Democrats are the party that is defending more competitive open seats so far this cycle. Setting aside a few seats dramatically altered by redistricting, there are only two Republican-held open seats rated as something other than Safe Republican in our ratings, while there are seven Democratic-held open seats listed as something other than Safe Democratic (our full House ratings are here). One of those districts is now NH-2, as Rep. Annie Kuster (D, NH-2) announced her retirement on Wednesday. NH-2 covers northern and western New Hampshire and is both geographically larger and a little more Democratic than the state’s other district, NH-1, held by Rep. Chris Pappas (D).

Kuster has held the sometimes-swingy Biden 54%-45% district since 2012, and she’s won around 55% of the vote her last three elections. Republicans thought they might make a run at this district in 2022 with then-Keene Mayor George Hansel (R), a more moderate option, but he narrowly lost the primary to the more conservative Robert Burns (R)—Burns got some help from Democrats in one of the many examples of Democrats playing in Republican primaries (for more on this tactic, see this recent Q&A we did with UVA Today).

In a presidential year and with a deep bench of potential candidates, Democrats remain well-positioned to hold this seat in November, so we’re going to keep the rating as Likely Democratic. However, we could see moving this district to a more competitive category depending on how the race for this open seat develops.

P.S. Democrats flip Huntsville-area legislative seat

Tuesday night was, by the standards of recent weeks, an odd night: It was the first Tuesday since mid-February that lacked a presidential primary. With that, we looked further down the ballot for races to watch. and our attention turned to the Huntsville, Alabama area, which was the scene of a special state legislative election in a marginal Trump-won seat.

In 2022, Marilyn Lands, the Democratic nominee for state House District 10, lost to Republican David Cole by about 7 points. Last year, Cole was charged with voter fraud and resigned the seat as part of a plea agreement. This time, against Madison City Councilman Teddy Powell (R), Lands won the seat in a landslide, as Map 1 shows.

Map 1: Alabama House District 10, 2022 vs 2024

Before we go further, a usual caveat about special elections certainly applies here: Turnout was considerably lower this week than it was in the 2022 general election. In 2022, the district cast just under 15,000 votes but that was down to about 6,000 on Tuesday.

That said, there were several local factors that likely fueled this Democratic overperformance in “Rocket City.” First—as her national counterparts have done—Lands made abortion rights a central tenant of her campaign. This message may have been especially potent in suburban Alabama, considering the state has been ground zero in the national debate over IVF access. Even before the state Supreme Court waded into the issue of IVF, though, the politics of abortion may have been especially salient in Huntsville: last year, the Biden administration cancelled plans to move the Space Command Headquarters to Huntsville. That move was widely interpreted as retaliation for Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-AL) since-abandoned legislative blockade of military promotions. Tuberville’s objections, which were met with bipartisan criticism, stemmed from the Pentagon’s abortion care policies.

We’d also add that, more recent developments aside, this area has been trending away from Republicans for some time. We estimate that, in 2008, John McCain would have carried the district roughly 60%-39% over Barack Obama—four years later, Mitt Romney did even better. But with Trump, the Republican margin fell to 52%-39% in 2016, and he only barely managed a plurality there in 2020. According to Redistricter, close to half the residents over 25 in the district have a college degree—the area is home to many high-tech aerospace jobs—which helps account for these political trends. Still, it is worth noting that Lands managed to overperform the percentage margin that former-Sen. Doug Jones (D) got in the district in 2017 (Jones’s showing that year could be considered the high-water mark for Democrats in Alabama, as he won a rare Democratic statewide victory that year before losing to Tuberville in 2020).

In any case, according to a handy table that Ethan Chen has been compiling, Democrats have, in aggregate, run 4.5 points behind Biden’s 2020 showing in special elections this year (overall, there have been 20). Biden won the national popular vote by 4.5 points, so these (very limited) results suggest a fairly even national environment. This also means that Republicans have been turning in some strong showings of their own. Last week, for example, Republicans overperformed Trump by 25 points in Minnesota’s HD-27B, an exurban seat north of the Twin Cities. That is about what Lands overperformed Biden by this week, although, unlike Alabama HD-10, Minnesota HD-27B is not a competitive seat and did not change hands.

— J. Miles Coleman contributed to this article